This is why you should try a cycling holiday: Danube Cycle Path
My first experience of a cycling holiday was a few years ago, before cycling became the hipsters' favourite mode of travel and before its 'cool' renaissance. I was initially a little unsure, but here's why you should definitely try a cycling holiday for ultimate brain relaxation, and why the super easy, beginner-friendly Danube Cycle Path is a great choice for newbies.
The route follows the Danube river from its source in Germany and continues 1800 miles to the Black Sea, but undoubtedly the most popular sections are through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, the most popular section in particular is the one I did: from Passau to Vienna.
By following the river downstream you ensure the terrain is flat (or even slightly downhill), and as it's Europe's most popular long distance cycle path you can guarantee well-maintained paved paths, easy to read signage (no map reading required, just follow the green R1 signs) and plenty of places to stop off for a beer or a rest throughout the day.
One of the best things about travelling by pedal power is the amount of ground you cover over the course of a week- I was cycling between 40 & 60km per day (which only amounted to around 4 hours in the saddle) and covering this distance each day allowed me to notice the landscapes slowly change as I passed from the dappled sunlight of the forests just outside Passau to the open plains lined with vineyards in the Wachau region, before finally hitting the outskirts of Vienna.
Following a route like this by bike allows you to experience a large part of the country without hopping on buses and trains and passively watching it all whizz by from the window. I found that getting some fresh air and doing a few hours of cycling every day was calming, gently meditative and invigorating in a way that your typical fly and flop beach holiday really wouldn't have been.
I'm all about relaxation while on holiday, but I find having a daily task - we have to cycle from A to B - more mentally recharging than spending all day on a sun lounger for a week. It may seem counter intuitive if you're looking for a week of relaxation, but I think we all know that lethargy breeds lethargy, and actually being outdoors is so energizing, especially if you usually spend your days hunched up and chained to your computer.
Plus there's the added benefit of burning off the obligatory Apfelstrudel each morning.
And this trip wasn't solely about getting back to nature - I really enjoyed spending time in the cities along the route:
Passau sits at the confluence of three rivers (The Danube, The Inn & The Ilz) and it has a pretty cobbled old town with a gorgeous baroque cathedral where they hold daily concerts in the summer.
Linz was extremely bike-friendly, had some wonderful architecture and seemed like a really vibrant, buzzy town that I would have liked to spend more time in.
I have to say I didn't enjoy Vienna as much as I was expecting to- I think I've been spoiled by European city centres which are usually pedestrianised, and so the traffic really bothered me; although I did have fun at the Riesenrad big wheel.
Another highlight was the Wachau, the wine-growing region, where I hopped between free wine tastings before buying a few bottles of Riesling for later. There's tonnes of cultural activities a short detour off the route, with a Celtic village, a former Nazi concentration camp, tonnes of castles, and a Benedictine monastery amongst the diversions you can take if you so wish.
Both sides of the river usually have the cycle path so you can make the choice each day of what you want to see, and cross over by little passenger ferries or the odd bridge. While you don't really need a map for navigation, this is why having a map of the route is useful - so you can make the most of the sites along the way.
You can buy the map booklet in English (with all the detours marked) in just about every town along the way.
You can make this trip as cheap or luxe as you like- there are heaps of spa hotels along the route, loads of mid-range options and even plenty of campsites. If you're not really used to cycling (or not so good at travelling light) you might want to opt for a service which carries your bag instead of stuffing your panniers full.
If you're new to this type of travel it can seem daunting to organise, but it is surprisingly easy to arrange without the aid of a specialist company. If you are going to go for it independently, sites like http://www.danube-cycle-path.com/ and http://www.donauradweg.at/en/danube-cycle-path.html will tell you all you need to know to plan the specifics.
I really can't emphasise enough how much fun you can have freewheeling alongside the world-famous Danube river, watching swans glide peacefully along, while you mentally plan where you're going to stop for lunch and which tourist hotspots you're going to check off that day.
With none of the usual perils of cycling (the route is mainly traffic-free, entirely flat, and easy to follow) it's a great trip for a group of mates of varying ability or to introduce someone to the pleasures of two-wheel travel. From Vienna you can continue following the river, heading for some more great cities, Bratislava and Budapest among them - definitely on the bucket list.